How is it that so many corporate stars — leaders at Enron, WorldCom, and the major banking institutions, for instance — are so inclined to take such outrageous risks that they bring their companies, even entire economies, to the brink of disaster? I believe that it comes down to mindset. Business leaders who take unusual and unwise risks tend to share what I call a “fixed” mindset. They think they’re infallible and they want to show the world that they’re superior. This is in contrast to people with a “growth” mindset, who are more oriented to learning.
People with a fixed mindset believe that human abilities are simply givens. They are not qualities that can be developed, but rather endowments, bestowed upon some but not others. For a fixed mindset leader, one goal is paramount: to prove that you are among the lucky few who possess a massive amount of these fixed and precious abilities. Leaders with a growth mindset don’t waste time trying to act like geniuses. They believe that abilities can be developed, and so they spend their time learning and creating environments where others can learn.
Showing they’re superior
Over the last 20 years, my research team and I have shown repeatedly that people with a fixed mindset wish to broadcast their abilities. When we give people a choice of tasks to perform, those with a growth mindset choose tasks they can learn from; those with a fixed mindset carefully choose tasks that will showcase their abilities.
When we ask people with different mindsets what’s important to them, we get different answers. College students with a growth mindset say: “In school, I am always seeking opportunities to develop new skills and acquire new knowledge.” Those with a fixed mindset tell us: “When I take a course in school, it is very important for me to validate that I am smarter than other students.” In other words, a fixed mindset creates a preoccupation with brilliance, with superiority.
But because it’s so important to be superior, something else sets in — biased attention toward events that confirm your superiority and away from events that do not. And this is how a sense of infallibility sets in.
Believing they’re infallible
There is a long history of research showing that people are overconfident about their abilities. But it turns out that people in general are not overconfident about their abilities; people with a fixed mindset are overconfident. In our research, Joyce Ehrlinger and I showed that people who hold a fixed mindset are way more confident than their performance would warrant, but people with a growth mindset are pretty accurate. How does this happen? It turns out that people with a fixed mindset focus heavily on their successes and, as much as they can, ignore their failures. Over time, they create a highly distorted perception of themselves.
In research with David Nussbaum, we showed that when engineers in training learned that they were deficient in an important area of professional skills, those with a growth mindset took steps to improve. Those with a fixed mindset, however, turned away from their deficiency and chose instead to dwell on things they were already good at. Which type of person would you choose to design a bridge, or the computers that control airline traffic? Do you want people who hide from their deficiencies to run your company?
In another study with Nussbaum, students at a top university were told they had done poorly on a test of their abilities, and were then offered the chance to see and learn from the strategies used by people who had taken the test before them. What did they do? Those with a growth mindset chose to look at the strategies of people who had done far better than they had — they wanted to improve. But those with a fixed mindset chose to look at the strategies of people who had done worse than they had. Why? They wanted to feel superior. And after doing so, they reported that they, indeed, now had a high opinion of their abilities. People with a fixed mindset ignore the warning signs.
Said one business leader before the axe fell, “I had always clung to the idea that I was different, that somehow I was smarter or luckier than the rest. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.”
Caution: This disease is contagious
The blame should not just fall on individuals. Corporate cultures can be toxic. In our research, Mary Murphy and I had people apply to an organization for employment, but before doing so they read the minutes of the organization’s last meeting. For half of the people, the minutes revealed that the organization embraced a fixed mindset (it believed in fixed abilities); for the other half the minutes revealed a growth mindset (the idea that abilities can be developed). Not surprisingly, people tailored their applications to the organization, either highlighting their genius or their passion for learning. What surprised us, though, was that these values stuck. When we later asked them what their core values were, one group said that being brilliant was central to who they were, whereas the other group said that growth and learning were central to who they were.
Great leaders grow
As human beings, it is natural for us to pick up signals about what is valued in our environment and to want to embody those values. But being superior and infallible isn’t something to strive for. Those values do not encourage people to do what is good for their organization in the long run. They do encourage people to take unnecessary (and often destructive) risks.
Most experts and great leaders agree that leaders are made, not born, and that they are made through their own drive for learning and self-improvement. Creating organizations that value a growth mindset can create contexts in which more people grow into the knowledgeable, visionary, and responsible leaders we need.
NOTE: Originally published by Harvard Business Review in 2012. Copyright 2012 Harvard Business Review. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.